Amid omicron worries, Japan reinforces border control at major international airports

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Arriving passengers on international flights are questioned at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Saturday.

To keep a new coronavirus variant called omicron at bay, the health ministry has reinforced border control measures.

Arrivals at international airports including Narita, Haneda and Kansai with a previous record of staying in any designated country such as South Africa will as of Saturday have to take different routes through the airport to avoid contact with other passengers.

At Narita International Airport, quarantine officers are confirming whether incoming passengers had stayed in any of the designated countries by checking their written pledges of the places they visited in the past two weeks and their physical condition.

When they are found to have stayed in any designated country, they are asked to self-isolate at lodging facilities designated by the government for 10 days upon entry.

“To keep the variant at bay, we are trying to inquire where people had recently stayed more carefully than before,” one quarantine officer said.

At the major international airports, novel coronavirus infection tests are also being conducted on incoming passengers as before. First, an antigen test that gives a result in a short amount of time is given. If passengers who test negative to this rapid antigen test have levels of antigens close to the positive threshold, they will undergo a PCR test to closely check whether they are infected with the virus.

32 spike mutations

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases on Friday categorized omicron as a variant of interest, the second of three levels of precaution. As of that day, there had so far been no omicron variant detected in the country, including among people in quarantine. The institute said it has not obtained sufficient information about the characteristics of the new variant, nevertheless, it has reinforced its surveillance arrangement.

The omicron variant has been found to have as many as 32 mutations just on its surface spikes, which help the virus bond with human cells.

According to an analysis conducted by Keio University, the new variant has mutations common with those of the alpha variant, which first emerged in Britain, and the Indian variant labeled delta. Both of these variants later spread around the world.

But omicron is considered to have mutated through a system different from those of the alpha or delta variants, and even from the beta variant that first emerged in South Africa.

“As it differs in system from prevailing variants in the past, the mutations may have accumulated in this variant while going under the radar in Africa,” said Kenjiro Kosaki, a professor at Keio University and scholar on clinical genetics who analyzed the new variant. Its infectivity and degree of seriousness remain unknown,.

“In some areas of South Africa, the new variant has supplanted the highly infectious delta variant,” said Atsuo Hamada, a specially appointed professor at Tokyo Medical University and an expert on travel medicine. “As there are many mutations on the virus surface, it is likely to have increased its infectivity.”

The infection situation in Japan is reckoned to be in a lull, with the fifth wave of infection brought under control, but Hamada was wary.

“If the efficacy of vaccines and therapeutics weakens,” he said, “the ‘exit strategy’ of aiming to get socioeconomic activities back to normal may have to be withdrawn in Japan and the world over.”